May was a good month of reading in terms of quality, even though the number of books read was low because I struggled to find the time to read. This is likely to be the new normal in the near future. Also, for the first time I am lagging behind in my Pilgrimage reading, I did not read Interim as originally planned but will finish it in June instead and hopefully catch up in the coming months.
So, without further ado, here are the books…For detailed reviews on them you can click on the links.
Winter Love is a fascinating, elegantly written tale of doomed queer love, toxic relationships and self-destruction set in Britain at the end of the Second World War.
Our protagonist Brittany Jones (called ‘Red’ by her peers) is a young woman in her early 20s studying at Horsham Science College and living on bare means. The Second World War is on its last legs, but the ground reality in Britain remains stark, marked by food rations, poverty and decrepit boarding houses. During her years at Horsham, as far as relationships are concerned, Red has always shown a preference for women, her latest interest being Louise Wells. But all that topples when she comes across the beautiful, wealthy, dreamy Mara Daniels (“I knew it was the most beautiful face I had ever seen”).
The novel, in many ways, is a character study of both Red and Mara and how their significantly differing personalities and circumstances play a crucial role in disrupting their relationship. The cover of Winter Love in this gorgeous McNally Editions paperback perfectly encapsulates the mood and atmosphere of the book; it’s akin to watching a classic black-and-white film, sophisticated and dripping with understated elegance.
The Antarctica of Love is a brutal but beautiful tale of chronic drug abuse, fragile familial relationships, isolation, death and loss. The first thing that strikes you about the novel is the unique and distinct voice – Inni is our narrator but she is speaking to the reader from beyond the grave, after she has been violently murdered. We follow her story or certain critical portions of it right from her childhood to her afterlife.
Thus, the narrative arc swings back and forth between three time periods – Inni’s troubled past with her family; the present which records the hours before her death when she is captured by the murderer; and the future, or to be more precise, the days and years after Inni’s death, where we are shown snapshots of how her family is getting on without her.
The story of Inni’s life is a tale soaked in sadness, a life filled with trauma and tragedy that leaves her vulnerable and shaken, sowing the seeds of chronic drug abuse. At its core, The Antarctica of Love is a pretty disturbing book given its dark subject matter, but what elevates it to the next level is the richness of the writing – prose that is haunting, suffused with tenderness, compassion and beauty.
Ethan Frome is a brilliant, dark, wintry tale of doomed love set in a remote New England town, a starkly different setting from Wharton’s classic, old New York.
Ethan Frome is a young, strong man barely making ends meet. Harbouring dreams of pursuing studies in science, those plans are thwarted by his father’s death and a host of misfortunes thereafter. Forced to subsequently take care of his mother as well as the family mill and farm, Frome becomes tied down in Starkfield with no hope of escape. Meanwhile, the mill and farm hardly contribute much to the income, reducing the Frome household to a perpetual state of penury. To make matters worse, Ethan and his wife Zeena are estranged in a way, Zeena’s continuous whining and complaining begins to take a toll on Ethan. In this bleak, despondent household comes Mattie Silver like a breath of fresh air…to Ethan.
It’s a devastating tale of a wretched marriage, a romance nipped in the bud as well as a brilliant character study of a man defeated by forces beyond his control, and the cruelty of fate.
Summer is also set in a New England town but during the blazing days of summer with Wharton herself calling this sensual, sensory novella the “hot” Ethan. Often considered a companion piece to Ethan Frome, this novella is a tale of a young woman’s sexual and social awakening.
We learn that Charity has been residing in North Dormer since she was five years old. A dull place, remote from everything else, she sometimes wonders what people from other parts of the world could possibly think of it. Charity realizes that her worldview is very narrow when for the first time she travels by rail to the nearby bigger towns of Hepburn and Nettleton. Having experienced the pleasures of theatre and fancy glass plated shops in those towns, Charity begins to feel increasingly disillusioned with her claustrophobic life, which only deepens when she meets and falls in love with the educated and cultured Lucius Harney.
Wharton’s depiction of a sultry, languorous summer is so evocative, the portrayal of an Impressionist painting setting where the romantic and sexual relationship of Harney and Charity plays out. As with Wharton’s novellas, in Summer too, there is an undercurrent of darkness that lurks beneath the façade of a joyous, carefree, sizzling summer and Charity’s fate is sealed in a way that may not be as cruel as the one dealt to Ethan Frome, but still a situation that suggests an uneasy compromise.
That’s it for May. I began June with the brilliant The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins as well as Tove Ditlevsen’s wonderful collection of stories, The Trouble with Happiness. As mentioned earlier, I will also complete the fifth book from the Pilgrimage series – Interim.
Edith Wharton is one of my favourite authors as can be gauged from the number of books I have reviewed on this blog – The Custom of the Country, The House of Mirth, Old New York, and The New York Stories. Her best novel in my view – The Age of Innocence – I had read pre-blog, and one I hope to reread and review in the near future. But this post focuses on Ethan Frome and Summer, two novellas that boast of the same emotional depth and intensity as her New York novels and stories.
Ethan Frome is a brilliant, dark, wintry tale of doomed love set in a remote New England town, a starkly different setting from Wharton’s classic, old New York.
When the book opens, we are in Starkfield, Massachusetts; a bleak, remote town characterized by winters so bitterly cold that they only accentuate a person’s sense of loneliness and isolation. Our narrator is a young man, visiting Starkfield for a short period on some urgent business. On his way to the post office driven by Harmon Gow, his glance falls upon the pitiable, weighed down profile of Ethan Frome for the first time…
It was there that, several years ago, I saw him (Frome) for the first time; and the sight pulled me up sharp. Even then he was the most striking figure in Starkfield, though he was but the ruin of a man. It was not so much his great height that marked him, for the “natives” were easily singled out by their lank longitude from the stockier foreign breed: it was the careless powerful look he had, in spite of a lameness checking each step like a jerk of chain. There was something bleak and unapproachable in his face, and he was so stiffened and grizzled that I took him for an old man and was surprised to hear that he was not more than fifty-two.
He also notices other features on Frome’s face, features that indicate a hard life lived, but with meager explanations provided by Gow, the aura of mystery around Frome only deepens. For instance, we learn of a red gash across Frome’s forehead which in the past is a result of an accident or a “smash-up.” We are told that accident had also “shortened and warped his right side”, so that it was an effort for Frome to take the few steps from his buggy to the post office window.
Information on Frome from the residents is cryptic, not shedding much light on the extent of his calamity or the reason for the defeated expression on his face (“That man touch a hundred? He looks as if her was dead and in hell now!”).
An unexpected offer from Frome to drive our narrator to his workplace on a particularly stormy, snowy night followed by an invitation to his home gives our narrator a clearer picture of Frome’s tormented past, a tale that the narrator then communicates to us readers (“It was that night that I found the clue to Ethan Frome, and began to put together this vision of his story…”).
Rewind back twenty-five years and Ethan Frome is a young, strong man barely making ends meet. Harbouring dreams of pursuing studies in science, those plans are thwarted by his father’s death and a host of misfortunes thereafter. Forced to subsequently take care of his mother as well as the family mill and farm, Frome becomes tied down in Starkfield with no hope of escape. Meanwhile, the mill and farm hardly contribute much to the income, reducing the Frome household to a perpetual state of penury.
Meanwhile, we are introduced to Zeena, Ethan’s wife, a hypochondriac, who for the most part of the day is to be found lying in her bedroom beset by a host of illnesses, for which she is on a quest to find a cure. These treatments are an additional burden on Frome, who is struggling as it is to get through the days. It is easy to discern that Ethan and Zeena are estranged in a way, Zeena’s continuous whining and complaining begins to take a toll on Ethan.
In this bleak, despondent household comes Mattie Silver like a breath of fresh air…to Ethan. Mattie is Zeena’s cousin (not closely related), and she finds a place in the Frome household to help Zeena with the housework and to do most of the heavy lifting because of Zeena’s lack of strength. This arrangement works to Zeena’s advantage – she can keep Mattie without paying her because of the latter’s father’s unsavoury past which left him heavily indebted to Zeena’s extended family and relatives.
Mattie is a lively, sensual, joyous young woman and Ethan falls head over heels in love with her and relishes the moments he can spend alone with her, however, frugal. It would seem that after traversing a darkened, suffocating tunnel of poverty, thwarted ambitions, and a dead marriage, he would finally embrace a spot of brightness at the end of it, a slim chance for happiness. But a little domestic mishap destroys that sliver of hope and as if life wasn’t already hard enough for Ethan, a cruel twist of fate in the final pages delivers the ultimate crushing blow.
Ethan Frome, then, is a devastating tale of a wretched marriage, a romance nipped in the bud as well as a brilliant character study of a man defeated by forces beyond his control, and the cruelty of fate.
It’s a very atmospheric read where the weather plays a dominant role in shaping up the lives of the principal characters. The bleakness of the harsh cold winters that gets under your skin, the feeling of being cut off from the world as heavy snowfalls blanket the region transforming it into an expanse of white, only heighten Ethan’s loneliness compelling him to make a bad decision of marrying Zeena. Indeed, Zeena was brought in to nurse Ethan’s ailing mother but once the mother dies during one such deep winter, he mistakenly believes that marrying Zeena is a better alternative than spending the rest of his days alone in this remote town where the cold is so unforgiving.
The village lay under two feet of snow, with drifts at the windy corners. In a sky of iron the points of the Dipper hung like icicles and Orion flashed his cold fires. The moon had set, but the night was so transparent that the white house-fronts between the elms looked gray against the snow, clumps of bushes made black stains on it, and the basement windows of the church sent shafts of yellow light far across the endless undulations.
Ethan’s plight is heartbreaking and poignant all the more so because of his gentle, helpful personality which unleashes a wave of sympathy and sadness in the reader. And he finds himself at the mercy of Zeena who while is not always physically around because of being locked up in her room, is nevertheless perceptive about the goings-on in the house in her absence.
Wharton’s writing is impeccable as ever, her vision for this novella is unremittingly bleak but she infuses such depth in her characters so as to make the narrative utterly compelling. A slim novel with a big impact.
Summer is also set in a New England town but during the blazing days of summer with Wharton herself calling this sensual, sensory novella the “hot” Ethan. Often considered a companion piece to Ethan Frome, this novella is a tale of a young woman’s sexual and social awakening.
Our protagonist is Charity Royall, a young, attractive woman residing in the small, puritanical town of North Dormer with her guardian Mr Royall. The book opens with her emerging from the Royall house on a translucent July afternoon where “the springlike transparent sky shed a rain of silver sunshine on the roofs of the village.” Her glance falls on a young man who rushes to retrieve his hat which has fallen in the duck pond, a man she has never seen before…
As he ran to fish it out the girl on lawyer Royall’s doorstep noticed that he was a stranger, that he wore city clothes, and that he was laughing with all his teeth, as the young and careless laugh at such mishaps.
We learn that Charity has been residing in North Dormer since she was five years old. A dull place, remote from everything else, she sometimes wonders what people from other parts of the world could possibly think of it. Charity realizes that her worldview is very narrow when for the first time she travels by rail to the nearby bigger towns of Hepburn and Nettleton. Having experienced the pleasures of theatre and fancy glass plated shops in those towns, Charity begins to feel increasingly disillusioned with her claustrophobic life.
That journey makes her realize that there’s a bigger world beyond, and this unleashes a thirst for information. She takes advantage of her position of a library custodian to read as much as possible, but soon the sheen of Nettleton wears off and Charity once again settles into her present staid life.
But then comes along the young man, Lucius Harney, and once again that wave of discontent rises in Charity as she is forced to admit how small and limited her existence is.
Meanwhile, Lucius Harney is residing with Mrs Hatchard (they are cousins), and has arrived in North Dormer because he is interested in the architecture of this town. On his visit to the library, he notices Charity for the first time and is so struck by her beauty that he willing to brush aside Charity’s ignorance of the requirements of her job.
After some misunderstandings between the two, Harney and Charity embark on a passionate affair that unfurls over the course of a hazy, languid summer.
All her tossing contradictory impulses were merged in a fatalistic acceptance of his will. It was not that she felt in him any ascendency of character – there were moments already when she knew she was the stronger – but that all the rest of life had become a mere cloudy rim about the central glory of their passion. Whenever she stopped thinking about that for a moment she felt as she sometimes did after lying on the grass and staring up too long at the sky; her eyes were so full of light that everything about her was a blur.
Meanwhile, there’s Mr Royall with whom Charity has a very complicated relationship. Sort of like a father figure to her, Mr Royall is also prone to spells of debauchery and he makes no mistake about his romantic interest in Charity with hopes of converting their relationship to that of husband and wife. Thus, Charity’s feelings are transformed overnight from pity to contempt when Mr Royall first makes his inclinations clear.
Wharton’s depiction of a sultry, languorous summer is so evocative, the portrayal of an Impressionist painting setting where the romantic and sexual relationship of Harney and Charity plays out. For a girl like Charity whose social sphere is so restricted, her affair with Harney is sort of a rebirth and she is drunk with joy. The two arrange to meet secretly and regularly at a secluded empty house to spend time together, and while North Dormer would consider this arrangement scandalous (“She had lived all her life among people whose sensibilities seemed to have withered for lack of use”), Charity simply does not care (“She had always thought of love as something confused and furtive, and he (Harney) made it as bright and open as the summer air”).
She was always glad when she got to the little house before Harney. She liked to have time to take in every detail of its secret sweetness – the shadows of the apple-trees swaying on the grass, the old walnuts rounding their domes below the road, the meadows sloping westward in the afternoon light – before his first kiss blotted it all out. Everything unrelated to the hours spent in that tranquil place was as faint as the remembrance of a dream. The only reality was the wondrous unfolding of her new self, the reaching out to the light of all her contracted tendrils.
Summer, then, is a bold, beautiful novella, not just of a woman’s sexual awakening but also of class differences and the paucity of choices available to women. From the outset, Charity is made aware of her origins, a fearful place called the Mountain whose residents are steeped in poverty and allegedly lack morals. Mr Royall makes no qualms about deriding Charity’s mother, branding her a loose woman. Having never met her mother or even visited the Mountain, to Charity it’s a place that signifies menace and terror but at the same time she remains a bit curious.
In sharp contrast, Lucius Harney is a cultured, well-educated man and in the course of their passionate tryst, Charity often realizes how out of depth she is with a person of Lucius’ class – she is pretty enough to attract him, but naive and unworldly otherwise. Charity also experiences jealousy whenever she thinks of her peer or rival Annabel Balch, who may not be as stunning as Charity, but has the benefits of class and privilege that are beyond Charity’s grasp.
As with Wharton’s novellas, in Summer too, there is an undercurrent of darkness that lurks beneath the façade of a joyous, carefree, sizzling summer and Charity’s fate is sealed in a way that may not be as cruel as the one dealt to Ethan Frome, but still a situation that suggests an uneasy compromise.
Ethan Frome and Summer and deviate from the Wharton’s New York novels in many aspects – both these novellas focus on the working class set in provincial towns as opposed to the wealthy upper and middle class milieu of New York. But in terms of the weight of emotional power they remain on an equal footing. Both these tragic novellas are potent in the way they depict repressed desires that have far reaching consequences on the fates of their protagonists.
Elizabeth Jenkins is a new author to me. But a couple of years back I went through a phase of acquiring as many editions as I could of these stunning Virago designer hardbacks (which also includes Elizabeth von Arnim’s The Enchanted April), and the Jenkins at the time caught my eye. Well, it turned out to be a terrific read, one that pulled me out of a reading slump for the time being atleast.
There’s a certain point in the book where we are told of a particular dinner set in the Gresham household that encapsulates the differing points of view of both husband and wife. These silver coated Sheffield plate dishes sparkled with newness when originally purchased, but after years of use, the plates now appear old with bits of copper showing through. Evelyn, conventional and business-like, wants to get them re-silvered; Imogen, romantic and artistic, prefers them as they are. Evelyn agrees to her wishes, but is secretly not pleased. So much so that later in the book, Imogen is left wondering whether her desire to not re-silver those plates is a possible metaphor for the deteriorating state of their marriage.
The re-dipping of the dishes was a small matter, but the emotional texture of married life is made up of small matters. This one had become invested with a fatal quality.
The Tortoise and the Hare, then, is a brilliant, disquieting tale of the gradual disintegration of a marriage told with the kind of psychological intensity that makes it very absorbing.
The sunlight of late September filled the pale, formal streets between Portland Place and Manchester Square. The sky was a burning blue yet the still air was chill. A gold chestnut fan sailed down from some unseen tree and tinkled on the pavement. In the small antique-dealer’s a strong shaft of sunlight, cloudy with whirling gold-dust, penetrated the collection of red lacquer and tortoiseshell, ormolu and morocco. Imogen Gresham held a mug in her bare hands; it was a pure sky blue, decorated with a pattern of raised wheat ears, and of the kind known in the country districts as a ‘harvester.’ Her eye absorbed the colour and her fingers the moulding of the wheat. Her husband however saw that there was a chip at the base of the mug, from which cracks meandered up the inside like rivers on a map.
Our protagonist is Imogen Gresham, a beautiful woman married to the dynamic, successful and distinguished barrister Evelyn, many years her senior. The couple resides in the Berkshire countryside with their school-going son Gavin.
Evelyn Gresham is a man with a strong, forceful personality, quite demanding and opinionated. With his good looks and physique he cuts quite an imposing figure and very often Imogen is unable to challenge his views, just agreeing to everything he says which to her seems so much easier. It’s not just Imogen though. Even in his dealings with other people Evelyn does not think twice about voicing his disagreements, and once set on something, he refuses to be swayed by opposing arguments.
Gentle and sensitive, Imogen could not have been more different. She is blessed with beauty and charm, qualities that first attracted Evelyn to her, but it is pretty apparent early on that she plays second fiddle in their marriage. She is not as assertive as Evelyn and for the most part acquiesces to his moods and wishes when it comes to his pleasures and matters of the household.
Blessed with wealth, comfort and security Imogen considers her married life to be a happy one although there are moments when she is gripped by feelings of dread and unease. That sinking feeling largely revolves around Evelyn; somewhere in the back of her mind Imogen vaguely believes that her efforts to please her husband are simply not enough. That sense of failure is not just limited to household affairs but is also reflected in the physical intimacy between them (“It’s an art, some people have it”, Evelyn had said).
Compounding her feelings of worthlessness is her difficult relationship with her son Gavin. Gavin is in awe of his father but does not think highly of his mother, and he is always in a combative mode with Imogen convinced that she fails to understand him. Imogen loves her son but her endeavors to make Gavin toe the line are often highly fraught affairs.
We meet a host of secondary characters who in many ways play a crucial role in the how the story pans out. First up is Paul Nugent, a close friend of the Greshams, a doctor established in London. Paul resides on Welbeck Street with two rooms of the house leased out to the Greshams when they are in town. Paul is married to Primrose but it’s clear that the couple has nothing in common. It’s almost as if Primrose is leading an independent life within the marriage, and Paul has resigned himself to that fact. A bit gloomy and prone to melancholy, he does hold a torch for Imogen and finds great joy in her company, although he refrains from openly admitting his feelings and is content with the state of things as they are.
There are the Leepers, a bohemian, crude couple whose son Tim becomes fast friends with Gavin. Tim often visits the Gresham household to spend time with Gavin and it’s obvious that given a choice he would much prefer hanging around in the Gresham house rather than going back home. Although now that Gavin is expected to attend preparatory school, Tim is aware of his time with Gavin being curtailed. Corinne Leeper’s husband is dead set on redesigning and redeveloping various structures in the village, plans that are met with increased resistance from the villagers. The Leepers are not deterred however. Corinne Leeper does not care much for keeping an orderly home and is not too bothered with the bringing up of her children either. Left to their own devices, her two daughters pretty much run wild, while for Tim, his time spent with the Greshams is the one bright spot in his life.
We are also introduced to Hunter Crankshaw, a good friend of Evelyn’s, briefly married and then divorced from Corinne’s incredibly stunning sister Zenobia…and to Cecil Stonor, Imogen’s good friend whose company Evelyn also enjoys because of her overall intelligence and sharp grasp of the stock markets.
Last but not the least is Blanche Silcox, the Greshams’ neighbour in the village. Blanche is about the same age as Evelyn and in the eyes of Imogen, an elderly, dowdy woman no man will look at twice. But what Blanche does not have in the looks department she more than makes up for in her sensible, matter-of-fact attitude.
Not taking her seriously at first, Imogen is gradually disconcerted to find Evelyn enjoying Blanche’s company. With a car that she can drive (Imogen can’t), Blanche is more than willing to offer Evelyn a lift to town, and to drop him back and this arrangement becomes alarming frequent. Not only that, as far as hobbies and pursuits go, Evelyn and Blanche share a lot in common, things that don’t interest or excite Imogen at all. Slowly but surely as Evelyn begins to spend more time with Blanche, Imogen, in a state of dismay and disbelief is staring at a potential catastrophe.
“Imogen,” he said with forced patience, “you have plenty of occupations of your own, and you don’t care to do the things that give a great deal of pleasure to me – when I have time to do them. You don’t want to fish or shoot and you can’t drive my car, which would be a help to me sometimes. Am I to understand that you object to my having the companionship of another woman who can do these things?”
At its very core, The Tortoise and the Hare is the story of a marriage, of the compatibility between couples, of a woman in a deep crisis. Confident in her unwavering but faulty belief that men only value beauty in women, Imogen knows she is amply rewarded in that sphere and coupled with Evelyn’s allegedly high moral values, Imogen in the twelve years of their married life has never felt threatened. But Blanche with her practical approach to life upends all that. We are told early on that Imogen’s grace and beauty played a prominent role in Evelyn choosing to marry her, but with the passage of time comes a perceptible shift in Evelyn’s priorities and now domestic comforts matter much more to him than romance. As a couple their tastes and outlook widely differ, and for the most part it appears that Imogen is always pandering to his needs; his meticulous expectations are often a source of distress to Imogen but she takes it in her stride.
It’s also apparent that Evelyn does not really respect Imogen, and part of this can be attributed to the fact that she never stands up to him. Imogen recalls a particular incident in his professional life where he expressed a wish to employ an assistant who is not afraid of him, which she realizes is an indirect criticism of her. But given his magnetic personality and intractable nature, does Imogen ever stand a chance even if she were to muster up the courage to oppose him?
There’s also a sense of how in the novel, the couples portrayed are generally mismatched, and how the perceptions of the children also greatly wary. For instance, it’s possible that Paul and Imogen would have been happier if they were married to each other given how well they get along and enjoy each other’s company; but, alas, that is not to be! Both are trapped in marriages where they are not respected, although Imogen at first does not think she is stuck in a rut. The attitude of the children is also interesting. Gavin holds his mother in contempt fearing she will embarrass him, but Tim would have loved having Imogen as his mother given that he is pretty much neglected back home.
The Tortoise and the Hare then is a domestic drama of the finest quality; a simple, straightforward story that is deliciously disturbing; infused with psychological depth that makes the book so utterly compelling. It’s also an interesting way of turning the concept of the extra-marital affair on its head – an older man, rather than being besotted with an attractive young woman, falls hard for an older, plain-looking woman instead (“Are you sure you know what men fall in love with?“ at one time Paul asks Imogen).
With characters that are brilliantly etched and displaying a sharp acumen plus a keen understanding of the mind, Jenkins is also to be commended for her descriptive powers. The depiction of the calm and tranquility of the natural surroundings in sharp contrast to the innermost turmoil of her characters, the calm before the storm, the disconcerting play of light against dark is very well done.
The weather was warm, bright and still, and London was steeped in that gracious quietness that descends for a brief time in late summer; it cannot show itself over the city as a whole, which is covered with a mesh of screaming traffic at every season of the year, but it is felt in strange midday pauses and early morning quietness, in a blessedly empty space of pavement here and there, an unexpected calmness at a street crossing. Every moment of such relief, every charm of sounds and sight, added to their happiness. In Imogen’s case the happiness was that of an enclosure, outside whose walls pain is kept back for the time being.
As a woman continuously undermined and diminished by both husband and son, Imogen must make the most important decision of her life (“The sense of helplessness in the face of frightful calamity, the longing to project herself through the dark air, filled her heart to bursting”). Her dilemma is this – Should she for once in her life take a firm stand, fight for her marriage and drive Blanche away? Or should she leave Evelyn, leave a marriage where she was not treated as an equal, and preserve her self-respect and dignity? There are no easy answers.
I had visited Norway (a country that conjures up images of remote, stark, icy landscapes) with my closest family in 2015, as part of our itinerary to see Scandinavia, a trip that also included spending quality time in the wonderful cities of Stockholm (Sweden) and Copenhagen (Denmark). Copenhagen was particularly memorable for its extraordinary cuisine. In Norway, we were mesmerized by the beautiful, compact city of Bergen, which served as a perfect base to explore the gorgeous fjords. After that, we travelled all the way up to the Arctic Circle and beyond to the vibrant, lively city of Tromso. During one of those nights, we were lucky to witness the swirling Northern Lights, a truly wondrous phenomenon. It was a great trip and memories of it made me think of books from Norway that I enjoyed in recent years.
The Other Name by Norwegian author Jon Fosse is about Asle, an ageing painter and widower reminiscing about his life. The book has an existential bent as Asle reflects on themes of love & loss (relationships), light & darkness (art). At the same time, he tries to help his doppelganger, also a painter called Asle, who is alone and an alcoholic. It’s the writing that is quite something though – highly unusual but poetic, the prose feels musical with its own rhythm, and has the power to transfix the reader. The second book in the Septology series – I is Another – is pretty remarkable too, and I plan to read the final installment – A New Name (shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize) in the coming months.
The Ice Palace is a haunting, unsettling tale of two Norwegian eleven-year old girls, Siss and Unn, both as different as chalk and cheese but drawn to each other to form an unlikely friendship. Tarjei Vesaas’ prose is as clear as ice and as brilliant as a diamond. There is a dreamlike quality to the narrative that explores the themes of loss, friendship and the power of nature.
Love is an unsettling novella set over the course of a single evening and night in a remote village in Norway during winter. Vibeke and her son Jon have just moved into this small village a few months ago. We are told in the opening pages that tomorrow is Jon’s birthday and he will turn 9 years old.
From the outset, it becomes apparent that there is some kind of disconnect between mother and son. Jon is pretty sure that Vibeke is going to bake a cake for his birthday tomorrow and decides to give her all the space she needs to do so. Vibeke, meanwhile, has forgotten her son’s birthday – something that is clear to the reader, but not to Jon. On that particular night, Vibeke and Jon are out of the house, but on their own with no inkling of what the other is upto.
Ørstavik infuses enough tension in her writing so that at the end of the chapters you are left wondering whether it will all turn out well for both mother and son. That the story is set in the depths of winter in a country close to the Arctic, serves as an atmospheric and stark contrast to the protagonists’ search for warmth and a sense of belonging.
The rather mysteriously titled Novel 11 Book 18 is the story of a man who realizes that actual life does not really meet his expectations. And so he decides to drastically bring his expectations in line.
Bjorn Hansen is a married man with a two-year old son living in Oslo with a comfortable job as a civil servant in one of the ministries in the big city. One day he abandons his wife and child to live with the wonderfully named Turid Lammers in a smaller Norwegian town of Kongsberg, and after fourteen years that relationship doesn’t end too well later either. Close to about halfway through the book, we come across a ‘twist’, where Hansen hatches an incredulous plan and decides to put it into action. This can easily be summed up as an existential novel – a man suffering a mid-life crisis. The prose, while clinical and unemotional, makes Novel 11, Book 18 very interesting and compelling.
THE LOOKING-GLASS SISTERS by Gohril Gabrielsen (tr. John Irons)
I read The Looking Glass Sisters before I started my blog, so I haven’t written a full length review of it. As far as the basic plot goes, here’s the blurb:
“Far out on the plains of northern Norway stands a house. It belongs to two middle-aged sisters. They seldom venture out and nobody visits. The younger needs nursing and the older keeps house. Then, one day, a man arrives…”
The novel is a dark, deeply unsettling tale of a tenuous sibling relationship, loneliness, isolation and the challenges of caregiving. It’s a first person narrative from the point of view of the unnamed handicapped sister, and it gradually becomes apparent that she could well be unreliable. For instance, we are shown instances of how her sister Ragna is cruel to her, but as readers we realize that the responsibility of looking after her sister coupled with her continuous demands has taken its toll on Ragna too. It begs the question – Who is really cruel to whom? I read The Looking Glass Sisters as soon as it was published (in 2015), and even all those years later, there are aspects of it that have stayed with me even today. It remains one of my favourite Peirene titles.
Sara Stridsberg first came to my attention when her earlier book The Faculty of Dreams was shortlisted for the 2019 International Booker Prize. I’ve yet to read that one, but on the strength of The Antarctica of Love, she is definitely a writer to watch out.
The Antarctica of Love is a brutal but beautiful tale of chronic drug abuse, fragile familial relationships, isolation, death and loss.
The first thing that strikes you about the novel is the unique and distinct voice – Inni is our narrator but she is speaking to the reader from beyond the grave, after she has been violently murdered.
The book begins with Inni’s gruesome murder in a stark, bleak area, on the outskirts of civilization, close to a lake, the water as smooth as a sheet of metal. It’s a remote place with not a soul in sight. A slurry pit like a quivering marshland lends the area an eerie, ominous air (“When the engine stopped we sat in silence, surveying the lake’s silvery sheen; a solitary black bird, soaring and dipping over the inky surface, the world’s last bird”). This is the spot where the unnamed murdered has captured and brought Inni, the final hours before her imminent death.
It was the blue hour, the hour when the sun and the moon met and the first tremulous night-time light and vestiges of daylight merged like magical waters and swathed the world in a quivering violet phosphorescence, when everything grew soft and nebulous and all the outlines and shadows melted away.
Inni is not scared though. She is resigned to her fate and possibly even welcomes the prospect of her life being extinguished. A chronic drug addict, she has reached the end of her tether with nowhere to go and no one she can turn to. Death seems like a release.
The murderer does not waste time. He strangles Inni, and cuts her body into pieces. The head is thrown into the slurry pit where it steadily sinks (“mine disappears into the slurry pit with the pink surface, sinking slowly to the bottom; and as it descends, my hair opens out like a little parachute over my head“). The rest of the body is dumped in two white suitcases and left close to the road where they will be eventually discovered.
Perhaps the reason I was already at the end, too soon, far too soon, on this muddy road at the edge of an unknown forest, was because I had no words for who I was and what I had come from. Inside me was voiceless silence, above me only a bare, defenceless sky and beneath ne the earth’s unrelenting gravity, pulling me down.
In The Antarctica of Love, then, Inni is sort of an omniscient narrator because we follow her story or certain critical portions of it right from her childhood to her afterlife. The narrative arc swings back and forth between three time periods – Inni’s troubled past with her family; the present which records the hours before her death when she is captured by the murderer; and the future, or to be more precise, the days and years after Inni’s death, where we are shown snapshots of how her family is getting on without her.
The story of Inni’s life is a tale soaked in sadness, a life filled with trauma and tragedy that leaves her vulnerable and shaken, sowing the seeds of chronic drug abuse. Just minutes before her death, when fragments of her past flash before her, the readers are also given a window into her world. At first, we are thrown headlong into a recitation of names the details of which remain hazy. We hear of Raksha and Ivan. We learn of Eskil, drowned many years ago. Shane is mentioned as is Valle and Solveig. These names are meaningless at the beginning, a clearer picture emerges as the tale unfolds, but we immediately get a sense that these are people integral to Inni in the way they shaped up her short life. In other words these are her closest family members whose destinies are very much entwined with hers.
Inni’s parents are Raksha and Ivan, a couple bound in a mercurial relationship. Inni adores Raksha, but her mother’s world is dominated by her passion for Ivan and for drugs. An early tragedy pushes Inni to the edge, a traumatic event that pretty much lays the foundation for how the rest of her life pans out. She and her younger brother Eskil are playing by the river; Raksha and Ivan are somewhere nearby. At a crucial moment, when the three are not looking, Eskil drowns. Attempts to revive him in the hospital are in vain, and Eskil is declared dead.
Everyone weeps apart from me, but something inside me has frozen. It isn’t just the tears, it is something else. A disillusionment so deep, so penetrating, the freezing point of blood, the ultimate Antarctica of love.
Eskil’s death not only affects Raksha and Inni badly, it increases the gulf between them. Inni still craves for Raksha’s love but Raksha remains distant and remote as ever. It’s also around that time that Inni develops an addiction for heroin; the heady rush of the drug coursing through her blood becomes a vehicle to escape a pitiless reality and get lost in a dream world. That steady descent into drugs will blemish her life forever – Inni does experience the joys of falling in love and of motherhood, but those new bonds are fragile; with her inability to remain clean, she is treading on eggshells, paving the way for more tragedy.
The Antarctica of Love, then, is an evocative, unflinching tale of a woman driven to the edge of an abyss from which there is no hope of redemption (“I had sunk deeper into the mire and slime that existed beneath the city, below the earth and asphalt where the filth gathered, in the underground sewers and metro bunkers where people lived like ghosts”).
What’s remarkable about the novel is Inni’s vulnerability – It would be easy to dismiss her as a woman who deserved what was coming to her because of the bad choices she made, but the emotional depth and beauty of Stridsberg’s writing refuses to let the reader judge her so harshly. There are moments when some sections seem repetitive and one wonders whether this is deliberate, given that we are inside the mind of a damaged woman who is plumbing the depths of her memories in recounting her tale…indeed, there’s a part somewhere in the middle of the book where Inni tells us something she’s already told us before and immediately follows up with the line – “but I already told you that, didn’t I?”
One of the themes explored in The Antarctica of Love is the debilitating consequences of parental neglect. Raksha is a self-absorbed mother, with Inni and Eskil for the most part left to their own devices. Inni yearns for her mother’s love, to be the centre of her world…Indeed, even minutes before death, despite Inni having accepted her fate, we witness brief moments of resistance with Inni calling out for Raksha. But the bitter reality of being denied her mother’s care manifests itself deep into Inni’s psyche with the result that this legacy of neglect is something that Inni passes on to her children as well.
It is strange that I fantasise so much about Solveig. I don’t know her and I never have. All I have is those two hours on the maternity ward when she was a tiny bundle of warmth in my arms. But it is easier to think about her than to think about Valle, because I never did her any harm. I kept her safe by making sure she would never need to be with me. For Solveig I did the only thing I could have done, even if Shane could never forgive me for it.
The novel is also a heartrending meditation on fragile familial bonds, loss, death and the momentous effort of pushing forward. The latter is particularly exemplified in how Inni’s parents and her children (her son Valle and her daughter Solveig) try to patch together the tattered fragments of their lives and attempt to move on, however, imperfect or arduous the journey. After years of separation, we see Ivan and Raksha reunite in their grief, and Raksha after having adapted to an independent existence, faces the prospect of being dependent on a man again. We also see the children Solveig and Valle, the latter in particular, try to adapt to their respective foster homes, and build a new life for themselves as they grow into adults.
Death is a potent force in the book, always lurking in the corner – Eskil’s death is the starting point of Inni’s lifelong downward spiral culminating in her own death at the hands of a random man. It’s also a tale seeped in loss and isolation – with death taking away her two children, Raksha is now utterly alone in her old age, while Inni’s unfathomable dependence on drugs isolates her from the world even further. Unable to drastically alter her circumstances, she also experiences the anguish of losing her children, but she harbours hope that they will go on to lead better lives with her not around.
Familial bonds are as frail as bone china, ready to crack at the slightest signal of danger. Raksha and Ivan’s passionate, volatile relationship threatens to engulf them…Inni and Shane love each other deeply but as addicts theirs is a relationship always in peril, of not being able to withstand the pressures that life throws at them.
At its core, The Antarctica of Love is a pretty disturbing book given its dark subject matter, but what elevates it to the next level is the richness of the writing. The prose is simply gorgeous and haunting, suffused with tenderness, compassion and beauty, with that aching melancholic feel to it but also punctuated with glimmers of hope.
The book is lush with a strong sense of place, stark, surreal and even dystopian at times; whether it’s the desolate lake area where Inni meets her end (“The world seemed to be heavy with rain, a world of rain in which the green appeared in sharper focus, a world immersed in water”), or the murky underbelly of a metropolis like Stockholm.
It is an archaic landscape swept by cold, harsh winds; it looks modern but it is ancient. A cluster of islands surrounded by motionless seawater beneath a naked sky. A patchwork of faded facades in yellow and pink with modern buildings made of black steel and glass. Bank headquarters, shopping malls and multi-storey car parks have a futuristic look, but age-old thoughts fill people’s minds, ponderous, inalterable; there are victims, there are perpetrators, there are witnesses, and they all peer down at the ground. The well-heeled live in the centre, as they always have. And the lifeblood of this city circulates around Herkulesgatan and from there to the banks, the money moves in and out of the state, and the architecture framing all of this is raw and cold. Some are doomed to failure, others destined to advance, a certain few will rise above the rest; and you can see the early signs, children defined from the start.
As a victim of parental neglect, trauma, debilitating drug abuse, and eventually murder, Inni’s fate mirrors that of people who live on the margins and sink without a trace; lives that hardly cause a ripple on the surface of the broader world. But Inni does not face that ignominy, through the sheer poetry of Stridsberg’s writing, her life becomes alive and vivid…she transforms into an unforgettable narrator whose heartbreaking, poignant tale will leave a deep impression on our minds.